Time Capsule

In late 1925, Minnesota psychologist Florence Goodenough, PhD, wrote excitedly to her mentor at Stanford University, Lewis Terman, PhD, about plans to open the new Minnesota Institute of Child Welfare. As the institute’s chief research scientist, Goodenough would oversee several research projects on children and supervise graduate students. She was particularly enthusiastic about the institute’s plan for securing some very young research participants: “There will be organized an infants’ home where from six to 10 infants will be kept from birth up to the age of two or three years for observation and study. Plans for this are under way, but as yet we have no babies.”

The idea for the institute (now known as the Institute of Child Development) was developed by a committee of University of Minnesota faculty from nursing, sociology, psychology, medicine, anatomy and home economics. The faculty proposal makes it clear that the infants would be kept in the “infant home” around the clock. Having unlimited access to the tiny research subjects would make this particular project “of extraordinary importance,” according to the proposal.

As it turned out, the infant home plan was abandoned some time during the first year of the institute’s operation, seemingly due to the cost. But since the idea of procuring infants to keep in a laboratory-like environment for scientific investigation seems odd today, it’s worth asking: Where did the idea come from and where were these enterprising psychologists planning on finding the necessary babies?

The early child psychologists

The language of the infant home proposal certainly raises eyebrows. Richard Elliott, PhD, then chair of the Minnesota psychology department, reported enthusiastically on the plans formulated by psychology faculty in 1924 to make optimal use of their access to infants:

“A strong conviction is shared by these men [of psychology] that the research scope of this laboratory would be tremendously broadened by the opportunity to observe and control material at all times, and they therefore recommend maintenance of the institution on a 24-hour basis.” Another psychologist on the faculty, Karl Lashley, PhD, outlined ambitious plans to measure rates of motor coordination and study visual fixation, reflexes, hunger, bladder control, sleep patterns and general activity.

While such ideas seem ethically questionable today, they were, of course, a product of their time. In the 1920s, child psychology was still a new field of study in the United States. The child development experts of the day felt it was necessary to invoke “masculine” images emphasizing a distanced and objective approach to subject matter seen by many as too feminine to be properly scientific. As psychologist Carl Murchison, PhD, complained in his 1931 preface to The Handbook of Child Psychology, experimental psychology looked down at the study of childhood, viewing it as “a proper field of research for women and for men whose experimental masculinity is not of the maximum.”

The question of where these early scientists thought they might find the necessary newborns to make their plan work leads to an interesting piece of University of Minnesota history. In 1914, the Minnesota Home Economics Department opened the first of two “home management houses,” sometimes called home laboratories. These were model homes in which junior- and senior-level home economics majors lived and gained hands-on practice — as well as course credit — for managing domestic tasks. In 1919, a new feature was added: a baby for each house. Working with local child welfare agencies, the home economics administrators arranged for these model homes to qualify as foster-type homes for local orphan babies or other infants separated from their families. These “laboratory babies” became the subject of a 1920 article in Ladies Home Journal titled “The Baby with Forty Mothers.” The subtitle: “A University Course in Home Making with Real, Live Infants for Textbooks.”

Better ‘material’

Some time during its first year of operation, the Institute of Child Welfare put the infant home idea aside. While it is unclear why, one report mentions that efforts were abandoned due to cost.

Interestingly, however, the home economics baby laboratory flourished with its infants until 1944 when child welfare officials decided that homeless babies needed foster homes that included both a mother and a father (apparently 40 mothers in one home was not enough).

While the home economics laboratories surely served as a model for the more research-intensive infant home laboratory imagined by the Institute of Child Welfare, it is unclear why those researchers did not take the opportunity to study the home economics babies. Geography may have played a role. The home management houses were adjacent to the agricultural campus in St. Paul — a significant trek for institute psychologists whose offices and labs were on the Minneapolis campus. It may be, too, that psychologists like Lashley perceived that the home management houses could not guarantee the kind of scientific control and unlimited access to “material” that they envisioned.

The institute’s plan to document scientifically the first two years of life was realized, but in significantly different form, by psychologist Mary Shirley, who earned her PhD in psychology in 1927 at the University of Minnesota. From 1927 to 1933, Shirley and her research team visited children in their homes to collect data, while other records were gathered by diligent, observing mothers.

Shirley published her findings in a three-volume set of books called, “The First Two Years: A Study of Twenty-five Babies.” The first volume detailed locomotor development; the second and third synthesized observations on intellectual and personality development.

For Parents Magazine, Shirley summarized the locomotion study in an article titled “How Babies Learn to Walk” and described “clear-cut stages” in the development of walking. Using her descriptive data, she reassured readers that there are large variations in the ages at which children go through stages during the course of the baby’s “walking career.”

“The mother may relax her vigilance,” she wrote, because “each stage will unfold in its own good time and not a moment sooner.” Shirley’s study makes clear that the dream of perfect control imagined in the institute proposal had been exchanged in her study for the scientific value of ecological validity. She justified her method on those grounds, noting that the vast majority of babies are raised in homes, not institutions, and to have practical and theoretical relevance, research should focus on those infants.

“Hence all observations and tests,” Shirley wrote, “were made with the baby in his natural habitat, his mother either being present or within earshot.”

Infant research continues to be an important part of the work produced by the Minnesota Institute of Child Development, but the idea of an infant home faded in 1925 and never emerged again.

Ann Johnson, PhD, is professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Katharine S. Milar, PhD, Earlham College, is the historical editor for “Time Capsule.”


  • Hartup, W.W., Johnson, A. & Weinberg, R.A. (2001). The Institute of Child Development: Pioneering in science and application, 1925–2000. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Shirley, M. (1930, December). How babies learn to walk. Parent’s Magazine, 22–23.
  • Shirley, M. (1931, 1933, 1933). The first two years: A study of twenty-five babies (3 volumes). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

On the founding of Institutes of Child Development in the U.S. and Canada in the 1920s:

  • Cravens, H. (1985). Child-saving in the age of professionalism, 1915–1930. In J.M. Hawes & N. R. Hiner (Eds.), American childhood: A research guide and historical handbook (pp. 415–488). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.